Doing hard things


I often talk about the need to minimise effort if we want behaviour to happen. The easier something is to do, the smaller the payoff for bothering needs to be.


Sometimes we need to do hard things. We want to do hard things.

There’s the thrill of riding a roller coaster, the relief of passing exams and the satisfaction of climbing a mountain. The adrenaline of presenting your ideas to a crowded room.

In these cases, making the hard thing easy would negate its worth. 

No one would ride a roller coaster without peaks and troughs or attend a university without some form of assessment. Being driven to the mountaintop is a much different experience than walking. And presenting ideas to an empty room, well, what’s the point?

This was on my mind as I lowered myself into 4 degree (Celsius) water this morning: the difference between the hard thing and the path to doing the hard thing.

You see, back in January I started a daily ice-bath routine. It involves getting into icy water for 5 minutes. It’s a hard thing to do, particularly now in the depths of a dark and cold Melbourne Winter. 

But aside from the plunge itself being a hard thing, there’s difficulty leading up to it, too.

Finding a source of cold water, for a start. Then there’s leaving a nice warm house to get into it.


Parsing the difficulty

When thinking about getting ourselves to do a hard thing it is helpful to parse the difficulty. 

There’s ‘good difficulty’. That’s the plunge itself. It’s hard, but it’s what I want to do and it’s worthwhile. Good difficulty elevates us. We are improved having done it. 

And there’s ‘bad difficulty’. That’s difficulty that is peripheral to the hard thing itself. This type of difficulty reduces the odds you’ll bother.

To increase the odds I would get into that 4 degree water everyday, I needed to make the pathway to doing the hard thing as easy as possible.


Painless pathway 

So what did I do to make the pathway to plunging as painless as possible? 

  • Installed my own chest freezer filled with water in my backyard so I didn’t have to drive anywhere (like the beach) to plunge
  • Landscaped the area so it was easy to step into the freezer (still sounds weird, right?)
  • Started at 12 degrees, not 4, and slowly worked down as my body (and mind) tolerated the discomfort.

The lesson is that people are willing to do hard things. When it comes to influencing ourselves and others to act, that’s usually not the problem

The problem is the irritations and frustrations on the way to doing the hard thing. That’s what derails us. That's what demotivates us. 

The hard thing will always be the hard thing.

It’s the pathway to doing the hard thing that needs to be easy.


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